It’s weird to remember that as a teenager in the noughties, early drinking experiences routinely involved relieving oneself in public. With strict licensing laws making it difficult for millennial teens to sneak into pubs, pissing litres of cheap cider down back alleys or in the dark corners of parks was a grim necessity.
As an environmentally conscious teen, I was aware that urinating at random wasn’t exactly neighbourly behaviour, so I came up with a solution to satisfy both my conscience and my desperate need for a wee. I decided that if I really had to piss and there was nowhere to go, the best thing to do was find a parked 4×4 and piss on that. I reckoned it turned an act of anti-social behaviour into a righteous act.
4x4s or sports utility vehicles (SUVs) have their roots in rugged, military and off-road vehicles developed in the 1930s. The first use of the term SUV appeared in the brochure for the 1974 Jeep Cherokee SJ, where the vehicle is pictured on a rocky ford as a couple load a dirt bike into the boot. Marketed as “the get-away machine your family has been waiting for”, it was said to be “youthful and sporty, with extra room that lets you pack along what you used to leave behind.” Basically it was designed for Americans who wanted to get into their vast countryside, taking plenty of sports gear with them.
By the time I was pissing on them, these huge vehicles were just beginning to take over cities in the UK for which they are completely unsuited. In the face of weak government attempts to curb their rise and grumbles from environmentalists, “Chelsea tractors” had arrived.
Popular for their comfortable, high-up riding position and no doubt as a status symbol — or perhaps a ‘fuck you’ to everyone else — the size and shape of SUVs makes them more lethal to pedestrians in crashes, while the rate at which they consume petrol makes them more lethal to future human life on Earth.
My one-man dirty protest unsurprisingly didn’t have the desired effect and SUV purchasing continued to grow, driven by aggressive advertising. By 2010 there were 50 million SUVs on the roads. In 2020, there were 280 million. That year, the International Energy Agency reported that the fall in oil consumption caused by people switching to electric cars was completely cancelled out by the increase in people buying SUVs.
Now a new and much more serious form of protest is spreading against these vehicles. “The Tyre Extinguishers” are an activist group that has made it their mission to make owning SUVs in cities “impossible”, by the simple method of deflating their tyres.
“By 2010 there were 50 million SUVs on the roads. In 2020, there were 280 million. That year, the International Energy Agency reported that the fall in oil consumption caused by people switching to electric cars was completely cancelled out by the increase in people buying SUVs”
The group has no membership as such — anyone can take part. According to a news article warning residents on the Avon on Somerset Police’s website, “The main method of deflating the tyres is to unscrew the tyre valve cap, place a small object like a lentil inside so the pin is depressed. The dust cap in [sic.] screwed back onto the valve. This over a period of a few hours will deflate the tyre.” The article was later deleted, presumably as it was too instructional.
Activists usually place a leaflet on the SUV’s windscreen explaining their actions. “You’ll be angry, but don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s your car,” it says, before warning that “the world is facing a climate emergency”.
At the time of writing, the Tyre Extinguishers claim to have “disarmed”, as they put it, 5,500 SUVs — but say there will be more that they don’t know about. Tyre Extinguishers are active in the UK, USA, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand. New York City was hit for the first time in June. There is even now a friendly rivalry in Scotland between a group called “The Deflationists” in Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Tyre Extinguishers chapter.
“We don’t believe in policing people’s lifestyles, but there comes a point where the lifestyle of the most relatively privileged people on the planet must be challenged,” the Tyre Extinguishers tell Rolling Stone UK over email. “SUVs in cities are the ultimate vanity. They serve no purpose. They are ‘luxury emissions’.”
The Tyre Extinguishers say they are inspired by the work of Andreas Malm, a Swedish environmentalist, author and an associate professor of human ecology at Lund University. In his provocatively titled book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm argues that where the strict pacifism that the climate movement has embraced fails — think Extinction Rebellion doing an interpretive dance in front of a line of riot police for no discernable gain — it might need to be complimented with some more radical direct action.
“Tyre Extinguishers are active in the UK, USA, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand. New York City was hit for the first time in June”
I asked Malm how he felt that thousands of SUV owners were waking up to find their tyres flattened thanks to his book. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
“If there is something that merits fury it’s the normalisation of SUVs on our streets — machines that produce an excess of CO2 emissions for no reason other than the flaunting of wealth. It’s about time that people take these monsters down — states are evidently not initiating their phase-out, so it’s people who have to do it. If my book has had any role in inspiring actions of this kind, it’s a little dream come true.”
From 2010 to 2018, SUVs were the second largest contributor in the growth of global carbon emissions, behind power. All the people buying vehicles designed to tackle rocky mountain roads for the school run did more to accelerate climate change than the growth in sectors like heavy industry, aviation and shipping.
“We should be aware that this late into global heating, CO2 emissions kill people,” says Malm. “It’s not like in the early 1800s or 1900s, when extra additions of CO2 into the atmosphere were still fairly harmless; now that the atmosphere is saturated with the gas, further emissions become lethal, causing even more deadly heat waves and hurricanes and droughts and other impacts around the world. This indiscriminate destruction of lives is what SUVs partake in.”
Malm was part of a precursor to the Tyre Extinguishers. In 2007, he was among activists who targeted SUVs in Östermalm, the most affluent area of Stockholm, deflating their tyres. Actions by the “Indians of the Concrete Jungle” — a name that he now believes was “silly and even inappropriate” – spread across Sweden and became a media sensation. In the second half of 2007, Volvo SUV sales in Sweden fell by 27 percent and Malm and his fellow activists took some of the credit.
“As evidence that their plan is working, they point to an article in the Telegraph, advising readers looking to buy a car, ‘if you’re worried about having your tyres let down, why not try a traditional estate car?’”
The Tyre Extinguishers will be hoping to have a similar effect. As evidence that their plan is working, they point to an article in the Telegraph, advising readers looking to buy a car, “if you’re worried about having your tyres let down, why not try a traditional estate car?” They say they also receive emails from SUV owners asking what kind of vehicle they should switch to to avoid being targeted.
Needless to say, their activities have gone down badly with many SUV owners. The group shows me their “favourite” hate mail. “Touch my vehicle, and your ‘activist; will not walk away. They will be wheeled away. On a stretcher. Fuck you guys, and fuck the environment,” writes one unhappy driver.
When I ask about the possibility that they could disrupt the journey that was really vital to someone, they say, “Cities worked fine before these death machines came along, and they’ll be much better after they’re gone.”
Are they concerned that their campaign is divisive? “We are concerned only with the climate crisis and its impact on the most vulnerable who did nothing to create this crisis.”
“They seem to revel in the upset they’re causing, joking on Twitter that much of the hate mail from ’angry men’ comes across as ’unintentionally sexual’”
In fact, they seem to revel in the upset they’re causing, joking on Twitter that much of the hate mail from “angry men” comes across as “unintentionally sexual”. In response to one man who suggested tyre deflating activists should be “prepared for a pounding”, the Tyre Extinguishers said, “Don’t threaten us with a good time sir”.
Unfortunately for angry SUV drivers, Tyre Extinguisher activists have so far escaped any legal repercussions. “Nobody has been charged or even caught,” they say. “There appears to be some debate about whether what we are doing is even a crime. Some police forces have said it’s criminal damage, others have said it isn’t. We don’t expect anyone to be caught either, because we can strike anywhere at any time.”
Malm, meanwhile, is thinking about what comes next. “To stay focused on the link between excess wealth and emissions, the next ideal targets are not difficult to identify: superyachts and private jets,” says Malm. Absurdly wealthy people — you have been warned.